November is Black Catholic History Month, when the Church celebrates the long history and proud heritage of Black Catholics. In celebration of Black Catholic History Month, the Black Catholic Ministry Commission is sponsoring a series of talks titled “Legacy of Enduring Faith,” at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 1927 N. Vel R .Phillips Ave.
According to Fessahaye Mebrahtu, director of Black Catholic and ethnic ministries, the educational and awareness series of workshops about Black Catholic history hopes to attract all Catholics and non-Catholics interested in learning the history of Black Catholics and their struggle to be part of the Universal Church despite obstacles and outright rejections.
“The panel discussion will also bring to light the diversity with Black Catholics. There are differences within African American Catholics, such as traditional style of worship vs. Gospel music or Africentric style of worship that incorporates cultural expressions,” Mebrahtu said. “African Catholics come from many African countries (and) their differences range from language and culture to ritual traditions. For example, the Ge’ez Rite Catholic is the oldest Christian tradition in sub-Saharan Africa. It is part of the Oriental/Eastern Rite Catholic tradition; however, it is uniquely African, demystifying the prevalent notion that African Christianity is the result of slavery or colonialism.”
This series is the first year for the workshops, and Mebrahtu said they plan to continue similar events in subsequent years, expanding on Black Catholic history in the U.S. and beyond.
“The objective is to make sure that we are all part of the Body of Christ, regardless of our racial, ethnic, ritual or linguistic backgrounds,” he said. “Our faith is expressed through language (and) culture, and handed over traditions; therefore, they should be honored and respected equally without cultural hierarchies.”
The program begins Nov. 6 with “Authentically Black and Truly Catholic,” presented by Vevette Hill-Nwagbaraocha, a Cor Unum, MA student. She is speaking on the topic, as many still consider it an anomaly to be Black and Catholic.
“Some think Catholicism is synonymous with being white, but Catholicism has everything to do with being The Authentic Church,” Hill-Nwagbaraocha said. “Being a Black Catholic is to fully participate in Catholicism, not having to check my blackness at the door. To be Black and Catholic is to walk as Jesus walked, while acknowledging the beauty and pains of my rich heritage. As Christ’s ambassadors of human dignity, it is our obligation to share this message so that we continue to grow in our embrace of the Church.”
On Nov. 13, a panel dialogue titled “Plenty Good Room” will cover unity in diversity within Catholics of African descent. The panel will feature Fessahaye Mebrahtu; Sr. Callista Robinson, OSF; Mary Words; Fr. Fred Alexander and Reine Marie Assana.
“Our experiences are different, and our cultures are different,” Black Catholic Ministry Commission Chairperson Mary Words said. “A lot of people here are from the different countries within the continent of Africa. Within the continent itself, there are many traditions. This panel will be a learning experience for me and everyone who comes.”
Words added that the panel is an excellent means to open up communication, share who they are, and better understand other Black Catholics in the same Universal Church.
“We have the same Mass, the same faith. We are Catholic and have chosen to practice the Catholic faith, and we want people to have a better understanding of who we are,” Words said. “We may express our faith differently, such as using different music, but we are all Catholic. We hope all races and ethnicities attend our series.”
The third and final event in the series takes place Nov. 20 and is titled “Uncommon Faithfulness,” with Simon Biagui, a Cor Unum, MA student, presenting.
Biagui explained that Black Catholics have an uncommon faithfulness that finds its foundations in their faith in Jesus Christ through apostles Matthew, Simon, Jude and St. Mark the Evangelist in North and East Africa.
“But it is also the work of missionaries who came a millennium later to preach in Africa,” Biagui said. “In the Americas, according to the late Rev. Dr. Fr. Cyprian Davis O.S.B., Black Catholics were ‘the Church in chains,’ whose faith came from their masters. The difficulty of our situation gave rise to the likes of Henriette Delille, the Oblate Sisters of Providence and Fr. Augustus Tolton.”
Biagui added that Black Catholic scholars initiated theological and ethical reflections, allowing them to articulate for themselves who they were and the spiritual gifts they brought to the Catholic Church.
“Black Catholic visionaries created institutions to provide support for our community actions because we had not been allowed to participate in many groups,” Biagui said. “The Universal Church can benefit from Black Catholics’ experiences. We are a model of hope. Our uncommon faithfulness and resiliency in the face of oppression and persecution can behoove and
reinvigorate the Church through a broad-based collaboration with a common vision, purpose, and unity.”
The events each Saturday are from 8:30 to 11 a.m. A continental breakfast will be served and masks will be required for indoor events. These are free events, but an RSVP is required. To register, contact Mebrahtu (firstname.lastname@example.org or 414-526-0385) or Words (email@example.com or 414-416-1843).